Will the EU Digest the Hungarian 'Goulash'?
The closer we get to the historic decision of the European Council to open negotiations on Ukraine's membership in the EU, the more aggressive Hungary's policy becomes. However, it should be understood that the special position of the Hungarian government is not always directly related to Ukraine. For them, Ukraine is a mechanism for "bargaining" for funds from Brussels. One of the most striking examples is the European Union's blocking of 22 billion euros to Hungary until they carry out appropriate reforms in the country. This was especially true for judicial reform. According to the Financial Times, the first tranche - 900 million euros - has already been allocated to Hungary, but the rest of the amount remains, so the struggle is intensifying.
From the beginning of the second half of next year, namely from July 1, 2024, it will be Hungary's turn to hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council. This fact prompts both Ukrainian diplomats and our European partners to speed up the decision to start the third preparatory stage of Ukraine's accession to the EU, the negotiation phase.
The next attempt to do so will be on the agenda at the upcoming EU summit scheduled for December 14-15, 2023. And the position of Hungary, which is the only EU member state that has refused to provide weapons to Ukraine and has made it clear that it will not allow the start of EU accession negotiations, is likely to be the main stumbling block to making a decision that Ukraine needs.
In addition, in a letter to the President of the European Council on November 16, the Hungarian prime minister wrote that "the European Council is not in a position to take key decisions" on security guarantees or additional financial support for Ukraine, further sanctions against Russia, and the future enlargement process unless "consensus is found on our future strategy towards Ukraine." He also expressed concern about the EU's policy in case the United States reduces its assistance to Ukraine. "Can we take further support from the United States for granted? How do we envision the security architecture of Europe after the war?" Orban asks in the letter. But perhaps the biggest threat from Hungary was its intention to disrupt the December summit of EU leaders.
In order to resolve the problem of Hungary's blocking of the EU's consolidated support for Ukraine and to hold a meeting of the EU countries in December, European Council President Charles Michel went to Budapest on November 27 to meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The talks, which Orban called "useful" without specifying details, lasted more than 2 hours. According to European officials, Michel and Orban had "meaningful discussions" about the Hungarian prime minister's letter calling for an "urgent" rethinking of the bloc's strategy toward Ukraine.
Such rhetoric may indicate that no final agreements have been reached and that negotiations will continue, but probably in a slightly different format. However, there is still enough time until December 14 to resolve the problematic issues and remove the risk of blocking the summit.
A Lawyer for the Russians or the Hungarians?
It is worth noting that Hungary closely links its claims to Ukraine with its claims to the EU, so they should be viewed through the prism of the Orban government's entire foreign policy. In particular, in November of this year, Orban stated that Hungary was resisting EU policy "with all its might," claiming that it would lead Europe "to destruction."
Relations between the EU and Hungary have been tense for years, and Orban is using the current situation to get more preferences and funds from the EU. And if this requires playing along with the Kremlin's policy, he will not be deterred.
Last December, the European Commission suspended the allocation of 22 billion euros from the EU Cohesion Fund to Hungary until its government fulfills conditions related to the independence of the judiciary, academic freedoms, LGBT rights, and the asylum system. It is clear that Orban perceives the initiative to allocate 50 billion euros from the European Union to support Ukraine in 2024 as a threat to Hungary's failure to receive the aforementioned 22 billion euros from the EU cohesion fund.
Yes, last week Hungary was authorized to receive an advance of €900 million from the EU under the COVID-19 recovery fund. However, this was most likely a pretext for the start of negotiations between the President of the European Council and the Hungarian prime minister.
Despite the desire to reduce Hungarian politics to a single denominator, there is no unambiguity in it, it is multilayered. This multilayered policy includes blackmail over the "Ukrainian issue" in order to unlock billions of euros of frozen EU funds, an attempt to show Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that Hungary is ready for economic and political cooperation with Russia under certain conditions (because Orban will not do this for free), and tactics to mobilize voters against "Brussels bureaucrats" ahead of the European Parliament elections to be held in June 2024. The Hungarian prime minister has already used this algorithm in other elections.
We must understand that there are still opportunities to circumvent Hungary's possible veto. And the European Union, at the level of the leadership of all integration institutions, is working very hard on this. In particular, with regard to the decision to allocate €50 billion in aid to Ukraine, all the leaders of the EU institutions said that even if Hungary blocked the decision, they would get around it.
Despite the contradictory dynamics, Ukraine remains determined to fulfill the EU's conditions related to minority rights. Let me remind you that after talks with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine was ready to fulfill all the conditions, including those related to national minorities in Ukraine (which Hungary had insisted on).
The situation is fluid, and the implications of Hungary's ultimatum for Ukraine's future remain to be fully unraveled. As the world watches, the outcome of the upcoming European Council summit will be a landmark event in this narrative, and there is ample time before the European Parliament elections in the summer of 2024 and the start of Hungary's rotating presidency of the EU Council to begin the negotiations on Ukraine's accession to the EU.